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The great Moroccan actor Mohamed Majd passed away last Thursday, at the age of seventy-three, at a clinic in Casablanca. He was admitted the week before for respiratory problems, following a short stay in Dubai to promote Noureddine Lakhmari’s latest feature Zero (2012). Majd plays one of the lead roles in this film about police corruption, social exclusion, and an anti-hero's redemption through love found in the film-noirish streets of downtown Casablanca.
The renowned actor was laid to rest in Casablanca, where he was born in 1940. His death follows the recent loss of many figures of Moroccan cinema's first generation of directors (Ahmed Bouanani), actors (Hassan Skalli, Mohamed Saïd Afifi), and technical virtuosos (Naïma Bouanani). Even though Moroccan cinema is still less known internationally because of its domestically-focused themes and politics, actors like Mohamed Majd have enjoyed international renown thanks to their talent, as well as the strong presence of global cinema in Morocco.
The North African kingdom has attracted renowned filmmakers to shoot films in its well-preserved medinas and the south-eastern desert, which boasts exceptional light and scenery, not to mention able technicians and many studios. From David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962) to Ridley Scott's The Gladiator (2000), Morocco is a familiar scene in international films, even if it is rarely recognized as such. What is also little known is the relationship of local actors to foreign productions.
It is true that most of the roles are landed by anonymous extras, with cinema playing a major role the economy of provinces such as Ouarzazate (often called Africa's Hollywood). But local actors can also perform shoulder-to-shoulder with big stars in films such as John Huston's The Man Who Would Be King (1975), Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana (2005), Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel (2006), and Radu Mihaileanu’s The Source (2011). Some of these actors often go on from minor appearances in Western productions to major roles in international and Moroccan cinema. Mohamed Majd was one of these actors.
After a career in theater and television during the first fifteen years following Morocco’s independence from France and Spain in 1956, national and international directors remarked on Majd’s acting talent. He was chosen to play roles in several of Abdelmajid Rechiche’s films in the 1970s. Majd was brought to international attention by Moustapha Akkad in his film The Message (1976), which stars Anthony Quinn, Irene Papas, and Michael Ansara. The film relates the life of Prophet Mohammad; shooting of the film began in Morocco, but after six months, the Saudi government exerted influence on King Hassan II to stop production due to the film’s perceived offence to the Wahhabi doctrine’s prohibition of any visual representation of the prophet of Islam. Akkad completed his film in Libya at the invitation of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, who bankrolled the project with a thirty-five million dollar investment after the withdrawal of the Gulf countries’ support. Qaddafi also provided three thousand troops as extras. Majd subsequently appeared in other international productions from the United States and Europe, including Philippe de Broca’s 1001 Nights (1990).
However, Majd's most enduring legacy will likely be his prolific career as an actor in Moroccan cinema from the late 1990s to his death. After a long absence from national screens, Majd reappeared by playing the lead role in the award-winning film Farewell, Traveling Player (1997), directed by Daoud Aoulad Syad. He also acted in three of Syad's other internationally acclaimed art-house films, The Wind Horse (2002), Tarfaya (2004), and Waiting for Pasolini (2007). Majd also excelled in films made by Moroccan directors with a wider international impact. Three examples are Nabil Ayouch's Ali Zaoua (2000), Faouzi Bensaïdi’s A Thousand Months (2003), and Ismail Ferroukhi's The Big Trip (2004). All three films won top prizes at various international festivals, thus bringing Majd further into the limelight. In 2006, Rachid Bouchareb cast him in his Days of Glory.
Despite his various accolades and the heavy demand for his acting talent over the last decade, the man was noted for his great humility. Majd was also known for his generosity towards young actors and the help he provided to new filmmakers in Morocco's thriving film industry.
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